A tree stood for 250 years, covered in gnarly vines and dripping in moss.
It stood by as the land next to it was developed and then abandoned. It stood by as a new owner, Lee Malis, 59, carefully tended to a garden out front and cleaned up the yard.
And when the tree was threatened, Malis stood by it.
The live oak that looks over Malis’ backyard on Northwest Seventh Terrace has garnered more attention than he ever expected.
The 5-foot-in-diameter, 250-year-old heritage live oak was supposed to be chopped down to make room for The Reef, a new apartment complex, in the northeast Gainesville neighborhood, Malis said. But then, a court case and fundraiser rallied around saving the tree.
Though Malis knew the developers were building the complex, he said he had no idea the tree wasn’t considered his own property.
But as of Thursday, the developer in charge of building The Reef wrote in a letter to the city that they decided to save the neighborhood landmark and build around it.
“I spent the last three weeks defending my yard, doing anything I could, telling anybody I can, and then all of a sudden it turned into this giant event,” Malis said. “I was out there by myself with my tree, and all of a sudden the whole city came out and helped me.”
The new design plans, which no longer remove the tree, will be submitted to the city for approval in about a week, city spokesperson Chip Skinner said. The $17,000 the developer paid to begin tree removal will be refunded.
The plan to remove the tree was approved by the city because it was on the developer’s land, Skinner said. But in a letter sent to the City Commission on Aug. 22, Gainesville arborist Meg Niederhofer said this survey was inaccurate.
“This is cause for real concern when the consequences of the inaccuracy could be the taking down of a monumental tree,” Niederhofer wrote it in the letter.
Malis and lawyers applied for an emergency injunction because Jones’ company was threatening to tear down his garage and fences, he said.
His lawyer told the court that the tree is “unique and irreplaceable.”
“What has taken decades to grow can be destroyed in a matter of minutes,” she wrote.
Malis created a GoFundMe fundraiser with the goal of raising $5,000 to pay legal fees. As of Tuesday, 47 people have donated $3,462.
“If we don’t stand up for our own home and our own trees, how do we complain about smashing forests in other places?” Malis said.
Originally, the developer chose to pay the $40,000 to $50,000 city mitigation fee, which would allow for the tree to be removed, Skinner said.
“That’s no small chunk of change, even for a multi-million dollar developer who is removing the tree,” Skinner said.
Malis called the small piece of land in between his yard and the building site “absolutely worthless.” Neighbors have their fences on this piece of land, and no one has ever contested who the land belongs to, he said.
He is concerned that developers may still kill the tree by cutting or building on top of the roots, he said. The sand live oak only a block away from his house has a parking lot built on top of its roots despite its heritage status as a national champion tree, he said.
“I’m living my nice quiet life, and then I’ve got this gigantic battle,” Mathis said. “I haven’t actually worked and left my yard for three weeks because I didn’t want them to come in and tear things out because if I’m not here, I can’t stop them.”
Staff writer Gillian Sweeney contributed to the report.
Staff writer Gillian Sweeney contributed to this report